By MARY ESCH
The Associated Press
SCHOHARIE — Federal safety inspectors are going to court to remove a roadblock in their investigation of a limousine crash that killed 20 people nearly four months ago.
Schoharie County Judge George Bartlett will hear arguments Tuesday over National Transportation Safety Board access to the limousine that crashed Oct. 6 in rural Schoharie. He scheduled the hearing after a sometimes testy series of letters between the court, the NTSB and Schoharie County District Attorney Susan Mallery failed to resolve what Bartlett termed an “untenable situation.”
At the heart of the issue is a turf battle between local and federal investigators. Mallery, who has declined numerous media requests for comment, said in her letters to the court that criminal trials take precedence and her office dictates access to all evidence, including the wreckage.
“It is concerning that politics are seemingly of much greater concern to some than justice for the victims and grieving families of the tragic limousine crash,” Mallery said in a Jan. 16 letter to the court. She accused the NTSB of spreading “legal and factual inaccuracies” through an “extensive press campaign.”
NTSB lawyer Kathleen Silbaugh said Mallery has blocked federal investigators from getting any closer than 15 feet from the wreckage and that evidence critical to the safety evaluation may have been lost.
“The court cannot comprehend how law enforcement precluding access to the vehicle by the NTSB serves the public interest,” Bartlett said in a Jan. 18 letter.
The 2001 Ford Excursion that was modified into a stretch limo blew through a stop sign at a T-intersection and crashed beside a country store, killing the driver, 17 passengers on a birthday outing, and two pedestrians. The vehicle had failed a state inspection that examined such things as the chassis, suspension and brakes.
Prosecutors allege the limo company’s operator, Nauman Hussain, allowed an improperly licensed driver to operate an “unserviceable” vehicle. He has pleaded not guilty to criminally negligent homicide and his lawyer has said investigators rushed to judgment.
“Both the district attorney and the NTSB have separate, but equally important functions,” Bartlett wrote. “Law enforcement to bring anyone criminally responsible to justice and the NTSB to ascertain the cause of the accident, recommend any remedial action so as to, hopefully, prevent future accidents and, thus, protect the public.”
Bartlett scheduled the court hearing, saying “This standoff must come to an end.” He said the court, not the prosecutor, has ultimate control over the evidence in the case and that he’ll make a decision allowing NTSB access if the two sides don’t hash out an agreement on their own.